The book is deceptive and, ultimately, fascinating in light of its subtly subversive effect. Whilst the narrative commences as what purports to be traditional fantasy, set in the Land of Ingary in which the workings of destiny and magic play a pivotal part, matters soon take a twist towards the less certain.
We begin with Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, apparently doomed to fail “first, and worst” if the three set out to seek their fortunes. As such, she seems consigned to an unremarkable life, not even being the “child of a poor woodcutter”. It is at this point that it becomes clear that the narrative is intended to play upon the reader’s preconceptions of the fantasy genre in much the same manner as is seen to be employed in Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Soon enough, Sophie becomes aware her younger sisters have switched places with one another, having been sent off to gainful employment and apprenticeship as apparently befits their station in life – a solution both are dissatisfied with and for which they find their own solution, having teamed up together. Not only this but Sophie is confronted by the infamous Witch of the Waste; someone who has apparently formed an ill opinion of her for reasons Sophie herself is incapable of explaining. As punishment for her supposed competition with the witch, Sophie is transformed into an old woman and finds herself forced to leave her life behind her. The search for her fortune leads her to the moving castle which is the subject of the title to the novel.
By this stage, all three sisters are seeking to live their lives on their own terms, to a greater or lesser extent, notwithstanding their apparent predetermined destiny – even Sophie has left the hat shop which was intended to be her inheritance behind, although she attributes this to her unexpected transformation, inferring there was little choice in the matter. Despite this potential unreliability within our main protagonist, clearly, we have left the realms of the straightforward behind. Matters are not as they would seem and, apparently, cases of mistaken identity abound. Sophie’s sisters, Lettie and Martha, are now masquerading as one another and Sophie is forced to pass herself off as “Old Sophie” in light of the spell cast upon her.
Similarly, there are many forms of magic at work once Sophie sets off upon her travels. Seemingly, the transformation has affected more than just her appearance. Sophie finds she is capable of exerting herself more, freed from the trappings of her status as the eldest of the family – even manipulating her way into a position and board at the moving castle which is the subject of the novel’s title. This is not without its hazards. Howl, the wizard who owns the castle is vain, cowardly, stubborn and prone to chasing after the local women – but only until he has secured their interest. At that stage, he abandons them for new territory. Add in a fire demon with whom Sophie makes a bargain, several magical contracts which require to be broken, the continued opposition of the Witch of the Waste and a spell cast unwittingly which appears to have rebounded against its originator and you have the basic elements which constitute the narrative.
This is a journey in more ways than one, with Sophie’s literal journey forming the basis for self-discovery, having set off on her travels. Ultimately, it transpires that Sophie’s true destiny can only be discovered through standing on her own two feet, as opposed to accepting what is deemed acceptable or appropriate for her. Being both stubborn and outspoken, she is an engaging heroine and sparks fly in more ways than one when she and Howl confront one another. Howl, too, learns from their encounters, being forced to confront his own fears and engage in genuine honesty – something which leads directly to the concluding denouement with the Witch of the Waste and, therefore, in some senses, rebounding against him. It is for the reader to discover how successfully the pair are able to battle against these odds towards the tying up of loose ends and happiness on their own terms.
The strength of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in taking what is arguably a standard fantasy format with which to commence a narrative arc and spinning a less than traditional tale via its composite elements. Neither Howl nor Sophie constitute the “standard size fits all” hero or heroine, both being as stubborn as one another and it is this which speaks so powerfully to the reader. They are flawed. Both demonstrate significantly bad moods, on occasion, with humorous and unexpected consequences. They make mistakes which they are forced to seek to remedy. They flounder and grow as a result. Ultimately, both are unquestionably human in their portrayal and we, the reader, empathise wholly as a result.
Further, despite being written several decades ago, the novel remains fresh in its message that life is to be lived on our terms and is what we make of it – this being something Sophie learns by its conclusion. Having reading it on several occasions, I find myself returning to it at regular intervals – perhaps the highest praise I can offer.